Symbolism and The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst

three scarlet ibis flying

What can I say about “The Scarlet Ibis” that isn’t on Wikipedia? This 1960 short story is loved by English teachers because of its clear literary symbols — a good introduction to symbolism, especially to colour symbolism.

COLOUR SYMBOLISM



Students can be highly suspicious of close reading when teachers talk about colours and their symbolism. Colours can have multiple readings e.g. red can mean heat and anger but also love. So what’s the point, right?

Let’s take one step back. What even is a symbol?  As shown by the ‘blue curtains’ meme in that post, sometimes a colour is simply an off-duty detail.

But the colour symbolism in “The Scarlet Ibis” is very much ‘on-duty’.

There is a good, watertight reason why Hurst’s older, wiser narrator sits in a green parlour, and here’s why.

Take the distinction between the youthful main character and his wiser, older narrator self, who I consider two separate characters (despite being simply the younger and older versions of the same person).

The older narrator barely resembles his younger self. This distinction — and his flipped sense of old man morality — is conveyed nicely in the opening paragraph via the complementary colours of red and green.

Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree. It’s strange that all this is so clear to me, now that time has had its way. But sometimes (like right now) I sit in the cool green parlor, and I remember Doodle.

Colour symbolism varies significantly between cultures and context, but red and green will always be opposite in a scientific sense —  unlike many instances of colour symbolism, colour theory does not change from context to context, from culture to culture.

Complementary colours, in stories, can be unambiguous markers of inversion. In other words, something in the story has done a one-eighty.

red green complementary colours

Young narrator: immoral.

Older, wiser narrator telling this story after many years of reflection: moral.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE SCARLET IBIS”

Apart from peripheral parents there are two characters in this story — big brother, little brother. And, as mentioned above, the big brother has two alters — young character, older narrator.

Take note of the ways in which Hurst compares the children to old people:

  • Doodle was born when I was seven and was, from the start, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man’s.
  • So I dragged him across the cotton field to share the beauty of Old Woman Swamp.

Alice Munro uses this technique a lot. She tends to write across a person’s entire life, in which a young woman is simultaneously an old woman, perhaps because the old woman is looking back. Yet the older woman is right there alongside the younger woman the entire time, affording the reader a compressed but also expanded sense of time. This has the effect of expanding time even within the brevity of the short story format.

Annie Proulx has a different way of achieving similar ends — Proulx tends to write inter-generationally — sometimes across three generations. Then she connects those characters to the landscape, focusing on the magnitude of the landscape, miniaturising the characters.

So what does Hurst achieve in this story, with mention of ‘old man’, ‘old woman’? Perhaps this story is an examination of culpability. Can the narrator’s younger self be excused for this reprehensible behaviour just because he was young? If he imagines himself as a person, simultaneously old and young — just a person — it is harder to justify his own actions. Hence the regretful, confessional tone.

SHORTCOMING OF THE NARRATOR

Values The main character starts with a set of beliefs and values.

This is a story of the patriarchy, in which there is only one way to be a man: Strong, able-bodied and protective. The narrator learned this young. He has learned to be disgusted by anything that doesn’t fit this stereotype. When Doodle cries he is chastised by his father:

“What are you crying for?” asked Daddy, but I couldn’t answer. They didn’t know that I did it just for myself, that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.

It’s the crying itself that’s the problem, so far as the father’s concerned.

This is ultimately a story of remorse. The narrator doesn’t exactly paint a flattering portrait of himself as a young man. How reliable is he as a storyteller? How reliable is his memory? This story isn’t held up as an example of unreliable narration, but one way of reading this story is as a work of self-flagellation. Perhaps there is a lot of sibling guilt in here, guilt that might come with the knowledge that the brothers’ situations could easily have been flipped. It could have been the narrator with the health issues, not the brother. Anyone could think this at any time about anyone, but when it’s your sibling, it’s easier to imagine the flipped positions.

Flipped. Inverse. Opposite. Again with the complementary red and the green, you see.

There’s also embarrassment.

Doodle was five years old when I turned 13. I was embarrassed at having a brother of that age who couldn’t walk, so I set out to teach him.

I put it to you that the narrator has been culturally conditioned to believe that a person can do anything so long as they put their mind to it.

“Oh, yes, you can, Doodle. All you got to do is try.”

I’ve heard it said that this is an idea that exemplifies California. I’ve heard it come out of various actors’ mouths in interviews — they are where they are today because they worked really hard and they had a dream, and because they believed in the dream — like, REALLY believed it — the universe delivered!

#NotAllActors

This 2013 speech by Angelina Jolie garnered attention because she’s saying something too rarely hear from the one per cent: That she is where she is today largely because of… luck. Privilege. Random fortune of circumstance.

If we really believe anyone can do anything if only they set their mind to it, that  can lead us to the following conclusion: If you’re living in poverty, homeless, desperate — well, you must have done something wrong. You deserve to be where you are.

If the narrator in “The Scarlet Ibis” can teach his brother to walk, this confirms such a view. He will also no longer be embarrassed by Doodle. He will also feel  like Jesus.

Since I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk, I began to believe in my own infallibility.

There is inside me (and with sadness I have seen it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love. And at times I was mean to Doodle.

The first thing he does wrong:

One time I showed him his casket, telling him how we all believed he would die. When I made him touch the casket, he screamed. And even when we were outside in the bright sunshine he clung to me, crying, “Don’t leave me, Brother! Don’t leave me!”

DESIRE

Desire The main character comes up with a goal toward which all else is sacrificed. 

The narrator wants Doodle to walk, for the reasons listed above.

OPPONENT

This goal leads them into direct conflict with an opponent who has a differing set of values but the same goal.

This story isn’t about differing values. I’m confident Doodle would love to walk and run and do everything most other kids can. He simply cannot.

Or is it? Doodle knows to give up trying to run before the narrator does — probably not just out of pain — he knows, viscerally, that ‘trying hard’ won’t do jack. Sometimes it really is a matter of ‘can’t’, as in ‘permanently cannot’.

PLAN

Drive The main character and the opponent take a series of actions to reach the goal.

The brothers go down to Old Woman Swamp and practise walking.

The immoral action is pushing Doodle way too far, causing him pain and physical damage.

In this particular short story there are only two characters, but also the third as I mention above — the much older narrator looking back. Via the psychological insights offered by this extradiegetic character, the same ends are achieved. In other words, the narrator himself guides the reader in our criticism of his younger self.

BIG STRUGGLE

Justification: The main character tries to justify his actions. They may see the deeper truth and right of the situation at the end of the story, but not now.

Throughout the narration, the reader is given all the reasons why the narrator keeps going with his plan.

Attack by Ally The main character’s closest friend makes a strong case that the hero’s methods are wrong. 

This is Doodle himself, not saying the narrator’s methods are wrong, but simply impossible.

Obsessive Drive Galvanised by new revelations about how to win, the main character becomes obsessed with reaching the goal and will do almost anything to succeed.

The parents are pleased with the narrator. The narrator feels less embarrassed. The younger brother looks up to big brother — his behaviours are positively reinforced. No wonder he keeps going.

The narrator pushes his brother beyond his limitations, and we know he isn’t going to back down.

Criticism: Attacks by other characters grow as well.

The father criticises the narrator for crying, though the criticism is for the crying, not for the immoral actions against Doodle. As far as the father is concerned, it’s great that Doodle can walk now.

It’s fully up to the reader to extrapolate that the narrator feels the way he does about Doodle because Doodle is failing to live up to society’s idea of a man. And that these ideas come down from their father.

Justification: The main character vehemently defends their own actions.Doodle was both tired and frightened.

He slipped on the mud and fell. I helped him up, and he smiled at me ashamedly. He had failed and we both knew it. He would never be like the other boys at school.

Battle The final conflict that decides the goal. Regardless of who wins, the audience learns which values and ideas are superior.

The big struggle is made more intense via the pathetic fallacy of the lightning storm.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator must choose whether to run home through the rain and lightning, or to go back and help his own brother. He chooses to run without his brother. So he makes an immoral decision, according to common decency.

At that moment, the bird began to flutter. It tumbled down through the bleeding tree and landed at our feet with a thud. Its graceful neck jerked twice and then straightened out, and the bird was still. It lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and even death could not mar its beauty.

The reader realises before the young narrator does that beauty comes in many different forms. If the scarlet ibis can be beautiful even when it’s dead, why can’t the little brother be beautiful even with his physical disabilities? The older narrator knows that now. He leads the reader to realise this point before he makes his immoral decision to leave his own brother behind in the storm. We therefore judge him negatively, as he has judged himself.

NEW SITUATION

The younger brother is dead; the older brother must live forever with the result of his decision. He immediately knows he chose wrongly.

FURTHER READING

Carson McCullers also wrote a story about two boys from the same family in which the older one abuses the younger. She wrote it when she was still a teenager herself. She called it “Sucker”.

Header image by Vincent van Zalinge

A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever

A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever (2008), written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, was a Caldecott Honor book and garnered starred reviews from the big hitters. Today I’m taking a close look at what makes this book so good.

A PICTURE BOOK FOR PICTURE BOOK ENTHUSIASTS

It starts with the cover. This is a picture book for kids, but it’s also a picture book for people who have spent many years reading picture books, engaging the adult part of the brain. The joke on the cover is, “Who are these boys smiling at?” I have previously noted that when illustrators draw characters as if they’re posing for photographs, this is a form of direct address — sometimes accidental, I’m sure.



Smile, Baby! You’re On The Cover Of A Picture Book!

But here, Marla Frazee draws us in on the humour of this particular picture book convention (largely outdated now — you’ll find it on classic Little Golden Books). “How long do we have to stand here and smile?” asks one of the boys, simultaneously making the joke (to adults) and encouraging (child) readers to open the cover to get on with the adventure.

Let’s turn now to the back flap:

Marla Frazee based this book on real people and real events. Almost all of it is completely true. Except:

  • Bill and Pam do not have a striped couch.
  • James and Eamon do change their shorts occasionally.
  • Bill’s vocabulary lessons don’t just happen when he’s driving.

But other than that, it is all true (sort of).

I love the observation about the shorts, because picture book illustrators make certain concessions for the sake of story, putting reality aside — one of those things is keeping the main character in the same clothing from beginning to end. Otherwise the young reader may not realise the character is the same person, especially when faces are drawn in generic style, as they are here, with dots for eyes and little else to distinguish between the two boys.

This is the kind of wry observation which appeals to an adult co-reader, achieving a genuinely dual audience. There’s an argument to be made that it’s impossible for children’s stories to be highly regarded unless they appeal to adults as well as to their ostensibly ‘main’ audience — kids. But there we have it. Children’s books are in fact ‘Everybody Books’, which is why they’re so hard to do well.

IRONIC DISTANCE BETWEEN TEXT AND ILLUSTRATION

A deadpan text narrates the events of the week, from the obligatory nature hikes and sleeping on an inflatable mattress downstairs to Bill’s well-meaning attempts to engage them in wildlife study and Pam’s great cooking.

Kirkus

What does Kirkus mean when they say ‘deadpan’? How do picture book creators achieve deadpan?

I believe Kirkus is referring to what Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott have called ‘ironic distance’. Later Kirkus uses the word ‘counterpoint’. Publisher’s Weekly calls it ‘contradiction’.

The standout example of this concept is seen in Rosie’s Walk, in which the pictures tell a completely different story from the text. For any given illustration/text combo, we can plot it somewhere on the ‘ironic distance continuum’. In this particular book, the deadpan humour is achieved by doing the ironic inverse of what Pat Hutchins did. In Rosie’s Walk the main text is staid while the illustrations contain life and death excitement. In A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, the text often promises excitement while the boys sit around and do basically nothing. The point is, holidays promise much but sometimes deliver little other than quiet contemplation and relaxation.

EXAMPLES OF IRONIC DISTANCE

Text: Eamon thought this chat was fascinating.
Illustration: Eamon, a middle-childhood aged boy, sits on the sofa between two elderly people. The look on his face suggests he is very uncomfortable. His posture suggests he wants to get off the sofa and do something else. It is clear he does not find the chat about penguins fascinating.

Text: And finally James did [arrive] with just a couple of his belongings.
Illustration: James has arrived with a hyperbolic, ridiculous amount of luggage, overflowing from cardboard boxes.

Text: He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away.
Illustration: James has a big, confident grin on his face and the speech bubble suggests he shouts ‘Bye!’ enthusiastically. He is not sad at all.

As is evident from these first examples, the ironic distance is to do with emotion. Marla Frazee is expert at conveying emotion via facial expression and body language. A less experienced illustrator would’ve had a hard time pulling this off.

I’d like to note, too, that picture book writers are often advised to ‘leave out anything that can be conveyed by the illustrator’. A sentence like ‘He was very sad’ is often given as an example of exactly the sort of thing that should be left to the illustrator. What’s often left out of these discussions is that sometimes the illustration says the opposite. Writers are advised to add illustration notes only if there is a very big ironic distance between illustration and text. This is where an author/illustrator is at a massive advantage — Marla Frazee is able to milk the entire continuum of ironic distance because she’s doing both. I’m constantly amazed at how well illustrators and writers work together to create excellent picture books when they don’t sit down at the initial stages to work things out together, but author illustrators equally adept in both (rare) certainly have this extra edge.

The comic book format of A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever is a good choice to convey the ironic distance between adventure and relaxation, because comic books are so heavily associated with super heroes, and super heroes never sit around — they’re always gearing up for something heroic, and then doing it.

THEMES

My own child was born in 2008, the year this was published, and I think the storyline has only become more relevant since then. Once kids are dragged away from their devices it takes a while for them to re-engage the kind of imaginative thinking which results in penguins made from gathered beach items. These boys are taken on a journey from the modern world into the world of their own imaginations, symbolically transporting them back to a more simple time.

This is the exact kind of nostalgia which appeals to the adult audience, and confirms my view that this book will be understood on a different level by adults. (My premise is that nostalgia is the one emotion young children cannot share with adults.)

THE GRANDPARENT ARCHETYPE IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

This story also subverts some expectations adults will have about picture books. We’re used to child-grandparent combos in which the grandparents have regressed back to childhood and enjoy fantastic adventures at the level of a child. Think Grandpa Jo from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and all the picture books featuring dancing grannies who have time for their grandchild even though the parents are too busy to notice the magic around them.

This books is not like that. This book is more akin to my own reality. Grandparents have time for grandchildren and go out of their way to create fun experiences, but the grandchildren remain wholly unappreciative. Because let’s face it, there has never been a bigger generation gap than that which exists between today’s grandparents and their grandchildren. Technology is the clear reason.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER

So what are children to make of this picture book? If we take away the parts they won’t yet identify with, is there enough left in the story for them? The answer is yes, but this is a picture book for a slightly older audience than the 3-4 year old set — the child reader will have to understand irony. This typically happens around age 8. So I might introduce this story to 7 year olds and up, with plenty of conversation from the adult co-reader.

SHORTCOMING

There’s no clear ‘main character’ because this is the story of a ‘generation gap’, in which the kids and older people are equally important. But young readers will naturally identify with the boys, so let’s go with them.

James and Eamon are a realistic admixture of excited and apathetic. Now that I think about it, this is a very rare thing in picture books. They’re excited to be with each other at their grandparents’ house, but together they slip into this snarky, underwhelmed attitude which bonds them to one another rather than to the older man who is ferrying them around.

“I thought you are supposed to walk on a hike,” one says to the other in the back seat of the grandpa’s car. “Yeah, not stand and look at some flower for an hour,” the other snarkily replies. Significantly, they sit very close together while the grandfather figure remains removed, in the front seat of the car and driving.

So, these boys have a clear moral shortcoming — they are failing to appreciate all that is right there for them to enjoy. Would the child reader have the same response as me, who is used to being an unappreciated chauffeur? I doubt it.

Their psychological shortcoming is that they have forgotten how to have a full spectrum of fun. The zombie-eyed illustration of the boys staring into a television is a commentary on how ‘young people these days only notice the world around them when it’s happening through a screen’. This is clearly from an adult’s point of view — an older generation commenting upon a younger generation.

There’s another layer of humour in the zombie-eyed scene — Pam has given the boys coffee ice-cream — massive icebergs of it. I recently made the mistake of buying ‘Coffee Intense’ flavoured ice cream from Woolworths and inadvertently lay awake all night after eating it — my previously sampled coffee ice cream from Aldi must have basically no caffeine in it.

DESIRE

The boys want to have fun on holiday, but they don’t know how to have the right kind of fun. Frazee’s illustrations mimic real life when she shows the boys having fun one moment, bored and zoned out the next. That’s exactly what modern kids are typically like. Moreover, the boys are rough housing with each other when the grandfather figure has unrolled a large map for them to appreciate. They are having fun, but it’s the sort of fun which can’t be contrived.

OPPONENT

The grandparents’ idea of fun activities is at odds with that which James and Eamon find genuinely diverting, so Young vs Old make natural Opposition.

PLAN

The boys ostensibly plan nothing — in naturalistic stories, kids don’t always make plans. They have to go along with adults’ plans. However, they do make their own mini-plans, to have fun in the moment. Their running gag is that they do everything in the same way. This constitutes a plan of sorts, kiddie version.

Finally they decide to do as they were expected to do all along — go outside of their own volition.

BIG STRUGGLE

The boys have been battling with the older people all week, not in any traditional sense, but the older generation has set ideas about how boys should spend time at ‘Nature Camp’.

This long-running Battle ends after the old people have exhausted themselves trying, and fall asleep snoring on the sofa. This is when the ‘winners’ emerge victorious — the boys go outside and look at their natural surroundings for the first time.

ANAGNORISIS

And it turned out to be the very best part of the best week ever.

This is a rare example of a story in which the main characters as well as the ‘opponents’ have both come out equally victorious. The boys have learned to appreciate the natural world around them, just as the older folks have been aiming for all along. However, they couldn’t  be finagled into appreciating it. It was only after the old people removed themselves that the boys were afforded time to get bored, and inspired.

The adult reader learns from this story that kids don’t appreciate things in the way we hope, though they will still be appreciating our efforts in their own way. We’ll have an easier time of child care if we just let kids get bored sometimes.

The genius here is not that the boys finally get outside in the end; it’s that their joy in being together is celebrated equally whether they’re annihilating each other in a video game or building a replica of Antarctica on Bill and Pam’s dock. As respectful of kid sensibilities and priorities as it’s possible for an adult to achieve.

Kirkus

NEW SITUATION

The reader has seen it was boredom itself that led to the boys’ true appreciation of nature. They have now made their own fun using very low-tech items and we can extrapolate that they have learned the skill of playing outside in nature.

I doubt it’ll endure when they’re back in their regular world of scheduled activities and computer games, but one day, if these boys become parents, they’ll probably teach their own kids to make penguins out of seashells.

FOR MORE ON GRANDPARENTS

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses is a middle grade American novel by Eleanor Estes, first published 1944. I consider this story a children’s literature sister of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House“. The Hundred Dresses remains resonant with young readers today, and is happily still in print after winning a Newbery Honor. (The medal was awarded to Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson that year.)

The Hundred Dresses is illustrated by Louis Slobodkin in his usual loose watercolour and sketchy style. Slobodkin was a good choice, since he shared in common with fictional Wanda Petronski a non-Anglo last name in a more overtly racist era — a rare #OwnVoices before #OwnVoices was a thing.

THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND ME

I was 10 years old when my Year 6 teacher read us The Hundred Dresses. He said, “I normally read this book when I suspect bullying problems. I don’t think there are problems like this going on in this class, but I’m going to read it anyway.” I immediately wondered if he knew what was going on.

After he’d read The Hundred Dresses, I knew he had seen what was going on. He’d seen at least some of it. I knew it was a little about me.

This was the eighties. The ‘Mean Girl’ group started up in full force that year. The Mean Girls themselves were victims in a system which requires women and girls to look a certain way. They wore tan coloured pantyhose under their short skirts, even on hot days, because suntans were in fashion. There was a hierarchy regarding who had the most ear piercings. Some of the piercings extended right up into the painful cartilage area of their ten-year-old ears. They tied their hair in a whale spout fountain.

Debbie Gibson. Our Mean Girl looked a lot like this but ten or eleven years old with freckles.

I wasn’t one of those girls. Unlike in Estes’ book, this wasn’t about socioeconomic status. Our hierarchy was a kind of rich-poor inversion. These girls with the piercings and the whale spouts had the most permissive parents. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood all evening in summer, unsupervised. Their families didn’t seem to have much money. The girls somehow found cash for pantyhose and stud earrings. But when they learned I’d been enrolled in karate (they turned up one evening on their bikes and peered through the dojo — classroom — window), they expressed their envy the following day. “How long have you been doing karate?” they asked, envious, because The Karate Kid was new out. I felt little bad for them then. Extra curricular activities were for ‘rich’ kids, like me. If my parents seemed rich to them it was because my folks were so very careful about money.

Case in point: The school photographer was bad at his job. He took a portrait of me with my eyes closed. I carried it home feeling the utmost shame. You weren’t supposed to blink for photos and I had been bad. Film was expensive. You were supposed to stare at the camera with a smile affixed to your face. If your eyes were closed it was all your fault. My mother was dismissive, borderline disgusted. “I’m not paying five dollars for that,” she said. “You can take it right back.”

Masking my shame, I had to return the stupid photo to school. The worst of it was, I was smiling as directed. Grinning with my eyes closed, I looked like a simpleton. I placed the portrait discreetly upon the teacher’s desk. But I was the only kid in the class whose parents didn’t pay the five bucks for their portrait. The teacher said nothing, thank goodness. But that afternoon, the girl with the most elaborate fountain of ponytail cornered me near my box. (We had boxes, not individualistic desks — our teacher was a Rudolph Steiner type). She said, “I know why your mum didn’t buy your photo. You’re too ugly.”

My mother did pay for the class photo, though not for the portrait. I don’t look at it much. Then, last year, as most of my class turned 40, someone tagged me in it on Facebook. It struck me how similar my ten-year-old self looked to that nasty girl with the most flamboyant fountain ponytail. Same height, same build, same freckled face. By any measure, our ten-year-old selves are identical on glossy paper. If this were fiction, she’d be my foil character.

Back in 1988, I believed what this identical-looking classmate said about me. To clarify, I knew ugliness had not been the reason my mother sent the photo back. But I suspected this girl was right, in a general way, about ‘ugly’. I had no piercings and a bad haircut, not quite long enough to tie up. I looked kind of like a boy (by design, actually). I was the youngest in my year. I (gladly) hadn’t hit puberty. I wore homemade, practical athletic clothes, sewn with love, if not by fashion, by my auntie who owned an overlocker and sold polar fleece jumpers at the Saturday Morning Market. These clothes were great for running around in, and when I wasn’t reading Ramona Quimby in the school library, I ran around a lot. But elastic is a precious resource, so my track pants featured two stripes instead of the superfluous Adidas triple, which marked the apex of Year 6 status at that time.

I wonder if our teacher overheard that insult by the boxes when he decided to read The Hundred Dresses to our class. He could’ve heard any number of others.

I do wonder what that girl is doing now. I’ll never know, because nobody tagged her in our class photo 30 years later. I left the town after Year Six, because my father was transferred to the city. I didn’t attend high school with that cohort, and had spent only two years with them in total. So I was surprised anyone remembered my name to tag me in a photo. I’d aimed for invisible.

Back in Year Six, Marie was the opposite of invisible. Fast forward three decades, I wonder if anyone else remembers her name at all.

THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

WOMEN OBSESSED OVER WOMEN

Lately, lots of people are talking about the highly promoted TV series Killing Eve, which features a woman increasingly obsessed with another woman. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast discussed other similar dynamics in fiction (at 31 minutes)and I thought immediately of Hundred Dresses as the children’s book equivalent of:

  • Eve and Villanelle in Killing Eve
  • Mrs Danvers in Rebecca
  • Barbara in Notes On A Scandal
  • Three women all obsessed with each other in The Favourite (2018)
  • The Bostonians by Henry James
  • Many French novels, usually set in school, usually someone younger who becomes obsessed.
  • Sarah Waters does it beautifully in Affinity and The Paying Guests
  • The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud
  • The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
  • Sleep With Me features a character who inspires obsession in others
  • All About Eve (1950)
  • Black Swan

In each of these stories there’s a possessive charge between each of these women and their objects, whether that’s sexual, intellectual or whatever. It’s about owning a piece of another person.

Why do audiences respond so well to this dynamic?

  • Despite all the examples above, we don’t see it all that often. There’s a current trend of writing ‘strong women’ who support each other. These stories are necessary too, but there are also conniving, devious, treacherous women. Audiences want to see all kinds of dynamic, not just the idealised ones.
  • The male gaze is default in narrative, so watching a woman gaze at another woman feels refreshing in a different kind of maybe-feminist way.
  • This kind of relationship is about identity and self-lack and not necessarily about the object in the way the gazer thinks it is. So the nature of the gaze is different. It’s turned inward.
  • In the past, authors have hidden behind the male gaze. Willa Cather is one example. (Cather wrote “Paul’s Case“.)
  • Women’s lust for power is rarely represented. It’s a new take on power dynamics. In the past it was more of a ‘woman catfight’.
  • The woman with the obsession is lacking something in her own life. She watches another woman from the sidelines, fascinated.
  • There’s a freedom that comes from watching another woman have the courage to do all the things you want to do yourself.
  • We rarely see two female leads on screen unless it’s this dynamic.

I have seen literary agents who represent young adult fiction lament the huge number of submissions they get about the viewpoint character best friend looking on at the life of the cool, interesting, sparky best friend. This probably speaks to a common pitfall for writers — both characters must be equally interesting in their own right.

DEHUMANISATION IN THE HUNDRED DRESSES

We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.

The Bad News On Human Nature, Aeon

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNDRED DRESSES

Many children’s stories (as well as stories for adults) begin in the iterative and switch to the singulative. The Hundred Dresses feels slightly unusual for its time because it begins from the very first word, in the singulative:

Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat.

Then, in small chunks, we get the iterative:

Usually Wanda sat in the next to the last seat in the last row in Room 13…

SHORTCOMING

Wanda is ‘very quiet and rarely said anything at all. And nobody had ever heard her laugh out loud.’

‘She came all the way from Boggins Heights, and her feet were usually caked with dry mud that she picked up coming down the country roads. […] No one really thought much about Wanda Petronski’.

DESIRE

For everyone, the deep desire is identical — to have as much social capital as possible.

In a story there have to be outworkings. For Wanda, it’s the desire to have everyone believe that she has more than the one worn dress in her closet.

For Peggy and Maddie, it’s the Desire to have friends who are truthful and transparent, and in order to achieve this end they must ostracise those who they feel don’t follow the moral code of their community. They have been taught that lying is wrong; they will therefore punish liars. Since they are girls, they aren’t allowed to be outright mean, so they will do this is in a nasty-nice way.

OPPONENT

Old Man Svenson is set up as the potential Baddie in this story.

People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn’t work and, worse still,  his house and yard were disgracefully dirty, with rusty tin cans strewn about and even an old straw hat. He lived alone with his dog and his cat.

But we’re all used to the classic Girl Opposition, which contains archetypes:

  1. The popular pretty girl (Peggy)
  2. Her sidekick (Maddie) Is the narrator Maddie? The narrator has excellent insight into Maddie’s head — she feels guilty for being a bystander to ostracism.
  3. The unpopular girl (Wanda)
  4. Various other by-standers

Peggy was the most popular girl in school. She was pretty; she had many pretty clothes and her auburn hair was curly. Maddie was her closest friend.

A Hundred Dresses remains a standout book because of its treatment of bullying, as a system rather than a good kid, bad kid dichotomy, which is not how bullying works:

Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, “Don’t you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?” she would have been very surprised. Cruel? What did the girl want to go and say she had a hundred dresses for? Anybody could tell that was a lie. Why did she want to lie? And she wasn’t just an ordinary person, else why would she have a name like that? Anyway, they never made her cry.

Readers will likely sympathise with Peggy a little, or a lot. After all, Wanda appears to be a liar. If Magritte were about, he would say “This is not a dress.” (It is a picture of a dress.) It is a little baffling why Wanda won’t say that her dresses are pictures — this is lampshaded at the beginning with the description that she doesn’t say much. Her laconic way of speaking seems to preclude her from uttering the simple words “I have drawings of pictures.”

ENEMY VS NEMESIS

There is a kind of rivalry, as mentioned above, which is a more like a love-hate relationship. I appreciate what Roxane Gay has to say about the distinction between an ‘enemy’ and a ‘nemesis’. We tend to love our nemeses as much as we hate them:

There are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.

The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.

An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.

The Pleasure of Clapping Back, Gay Mag

But the way Eleanor Estes structures it: The opposition is kept as the final big reveal.

PLAN

When there is a drawing competition at school Wanda takes this opportunity to reveal that the dresses are drawings of dresses. She enters every image into the competition.

After Wanda leaves the character focus shifts to Peggy and Maddie. Because they feel bad, their plan is to write a letter to Wanda as a friendly gesture. This will assuage their own guilt.

BIG STRUGGLE

Wanda disappears. Her father says she has been bullied. The teacher gives the class a lecture. Wanda is basically the blow-in saviour trope, so now the Battle is internal, focusing on the psychology of Maddie. She feels guilt.

ANAGNORISIS

The first plot revelation is that Wanda was talking about dresses.

The second revelation is that Wanda drew the popular girls as models for her dresses.

What is not revealed is how the poor girl really feels about the rich one. Does Wanda genuinely admire Peggy? We are left thinking that, and as a child I did think that, but how does she feel, really?

I suspect this is a love-hate relationship from her side, and a nothing, you’re-less-than-nothing relationship from the other.

It is the rich girl who has the Anagnorisis — that even when you pay someone no mind, that doesn’t mean they feel the same about you. The moral? Treat everyone with respect, no matter how worthy you deem them. Everyone is worthy of your attention. Attention equals respect.

NEW SITUATION

Peggy and Maddie have learned to be less passive aggressive in future because they have learned that Wanda is a rounded individual with feelings rather than a figure of fun.

RELATED LINKS

Using The Hundred Dresses to teach philosophy to children

Sucker by Carson McCullers

Sucker” has been called Carson McCullers’ ‘apprentice story’. Written at the age of seventeen, she naturally demonstrated more sophisticated writing later on. “Sucker” was written in the mid 1930s and published for the public in 1963.

For a while, McCullers forgot she ever wrote this story. “Sucker” was uncovered in her trunk of papers by someone studying her corpus for a thesis. By this time she was an established author. She never wrote “Sucker” thinking it would be published, but it was the first story she was happy to share with her family. She had written it by hand then typed it out on her first typewriter.Significantly, McCullers still liked this story after it was unearthed, and even though she had clearly grown more sophisticated as a writer. Many writers look back on their early work and cringe. Eleanor Catton can no longer enjoy The Rehearsal, for instance, saying she no longer writes in that style.



WHAT HAPPENS IN “SUCKER”?

Sucker is the nickname of a gullible 12-year-old boy — symbolically nicknamed, of course. Later in the story, Sucker will lose this insulting nickname, which will signal the shift in power dynamics. Sucker idolises his older cousin, Pete, who is not very nice in return. They have grown up in the same house, more like brothers than cousins. The age of twelve is pretty magical, in storytelling and in real life — people change a lot around this time. And so does Sucker in this story. He realises that his cousin Pete is not a good role model.

NARRATION OF “SUCKER”

You might expect such a plot to have been written from Sucker’s point of view, but no. This is all narrated by the sixteen-year-old cousin and reads like a catharsis in which Pete wrestles with his feelings of being adored while adoring someone who ignores him. Shit travels down, as they say.

Although Pete is sixteen at the time the story takes place, he must have had a little time to process all of this by the time he’s written it down. Storyteller narrators are like that — the reason for writing the story is to learn something. In the act of writing itself, they learn something. The Anagnorisis in such a story therefore occurs throughout the entire plot, and you’ll typically find wise observations scattered throughout.

The arc of looking up to someone and then realising they’re not worth your effort is well explored in literature and film. Go back to Vladmir Propp, who listed the plot point in every single classic fairytale. (See step six, in which the main character is ‘tricked’ — often into trusting the untrustworthy Opponent.)

So McCullers made an excellent choice to examine this dynamic from the idol’s point of view. We hear less about the trials of being adored.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRANSFERENCE

Shit travels down. That’s everyday speak for what psychologists call ‘transference‘. Freud came up with it. Transference describes a situation in which the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person.

In the case of “Sucker”, Pete is rejected by a girl he likes. So he deals with this highly uncomfortable feeling by rejecting his younger cousin in turn.

There are gender issues here, too. Boys, more than girls, are culturally conditioned to expect love and romance. Think of all those stories and computer games in which the ‘reward’ is a girl. Enter the teenage years. A few boys are so shocked to learn that a girl’s time and attention is not a god-given right that they feel a sense of injustice where they should simply feel sadness and disappointment.

Pete’s treatment of Sucker shows that he is trying to restore his own version of worldly justice by treating someone else as he has been treated.

Although Carson McCullers kept growing as an author, she demonstrated a preternaturally mature understanding of human psychology when she wrote “Sucker” at the age of seventeen. I can see why she always liked it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SUCKER”

SHORTCOMING

Robert Phillips (1978) said of Carson McCullers’ characters that they seem fine on the surface but suffer from an “inner freaking-out”. They are “spiritual isolates of circumstance”. Themes of rejection (and unrequited love) are seen over and over, in both her novels and in her short stories. (Worth pointing out because the short stories are qualitatively different from the novels.)

Pete is at the mercy of his own feelings of unrequited love toward a girl at school called Maybelle. Because of the environment in which he’s been brought up, these uncomfortable feelings are expressed as a silent, inward rage which must come out. Since he doesn’t have access to Maybelle, the target is Sucker. Sucker’s admiration for Pete only reminds Pete of his own admiration for Maybelle. Pete therefore has a strong Moral Shortcoming, treating his cousin very badly.

Pete is uncomfortable with being admired. This is probably because he doesn’t especially admire himself. He describes himself as a poor student. He feels Sucker is very stupid for admiring him. Stupid people are annoying.

DESIRE

Pete wants to go out with Maybelle. This is the outworking of a deeper Desire — to be loved for all the right reasons — for being himself.

OPPONENT

Maybelle is the romantic Opponent. Sucker is the proxy for the romantic opponent, since Maybelle is not there to heap shit on.

Proxy romantic partner is strongly suggested at various points — the boys share a bed; Sucker’s wrists look thin and white like girls’ wrists. Maybelle’s hands are similarly ‘little and white’. When Pete dreams of Maybelle, he hears Sucker’s voice — the characters become conflated. This is a kind of coitus uninterruptus trope.

PLAN

Pete’s focus is on getting Maybelle to like him in return, so he uses his own money to take her out to the movies, tries to impress her and so on.

BIG STRUGGLE

When Maybelle finally musters the courage to tell Pete she’s really not interested in him (I suspect she’s been trying to avoid hurting his feelings until now), Pete wakes up in the middle of the night squeezing Sucker’s arm really hard. Then he tells Sucker he’s never liked him, in a reenactment of what Maybelle has said to him.

ANAGNORISIS

By the time he narrates this tale, storyteller character Pete has already achieved the following wisdom: “If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care… it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire”.

So how does the Anagnorisis phase work in a story like this, narrated by someone who has already had quite a few epiphanies, sprinkled like aphorisms throughout?

Basically, it comes much earlier. We are told of Pete’s Anagnorisis at the beginning, in fact.

But you could argue that Sucker is the main character of this story. For Sucker, the Anagnorisis comes in the expected place, right after the Battle. He realises Pete is not a worthy object of his affection and hardens up like the ‘man’ he is expected to be.

The reader can see that in the two or three months since this all happened, Pete has come to an understanding about how he treated Sucker badly. For him, the outcome isn’t bad. It’s doubtful he’ll do this exact thing to anyone else. He has started to call Sucker by his real name, Richard. This indicates a new respect. But the dynamics haven’t disappeared — they have been flipped. Now that Sucker doesn’t care about Pete, Pete suddenly cares quite a lot about Sucker.

It seems he hasn’t realised this yet, though the reader does. His Anagnorisis is only partial, as in all coming-of-age stories.

NEW SITUATION

Pete has wreaked much damage upon the character of Sucker, who has found another target of his admiration, this time it’s a bad lot of kids who may get him into irreversible trouble.

Sometimes, in service of us learning a valuable lesson, we damage someone else.

Header image from this site.